I know that cigarettes are behind many of the estimated 480,000 deaths related to tobacco each year in the United States, and yet, I’m into smokers. My attraction is certainly at odds with my identity as a CrossFit athlete and as a health and wellness writer, but again and again, I lust after James Dean types and their ashtray-scented skin.
My biggest turn-on though, according to experts, doesn’t paint me as a hypocritical hack. Phew. “Many of the things that that we are aroused by bring up a sense of nostalgia or comfort,” says Liz Powell, PsyD, a sex educator, coach and licensed psychologist. Well, a quick stroll down memory lane reminds me that my first significant other was a smoker. (Check, nostalgia. Check, comfort.)
The first time we kissed, we were in her car listening to Bright Eyes (don’t @ me—I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is a quality album) while she smoked and then put out the flame on the dashboard. A string of smokers followed in her trail of cigarette butts, and they all contributed to cultivating my attraction to people who light up. But most notably and enduringly, there was J, who had been smoking for close to 20 years when we connected. Throughout our year together, her habit (nay, addiction) indeed turned me on, but it also became a huge issue as we got more serious.
Smoking may have drawn me to her initially, but it ultimately kept me from fully committing. Research shows that heavy smokers cut their lifespan by 13 years—not to mention being around one increases my own risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke via secondhand smoke. Of course, neither firsthand- nor secondhand-smoke risks were news to me, but when faced with accepting the cold, hard facts as a permanent feature of my relationship in order to stoke the fire of an attraction, I couldn’t sign onboard in good conscience.
Yet, here I am, back on the dating bandwagon, and I’m still inexplicably attracted to cigarette smokers. Dr. Powell says I’m not crazy, and that this confusing contradiction is courtesy of the shame and pleasure centers in my brain being closely connected. “It’s possible that your shame around desiring smokers has actually amplified that desire,” she says. I’m not alone in my bad-for-me attractions, either. Some are drawn to potentially destructive or simply emotionally confusing types like soft boys or narcissists.
“There’s no value in making yourself feel guilty for what turns you on. But there is value in acknowledging that you don’t have to act on everything that arouses you.” —Shadeen Francis, LMFT
Okay, great—science backs me up and I’m in good company, yet I still haven’t figured out how to treat the root of my problem. How can I find someone without falling victim to the paradigm of being attracted to someone for the very reason I can’t be with them long-term?
Step one, says Shadeen Francis, LMFT, is to let what arouses you do just that. “There’s no value in making yourself feel guilty for what turns you on. But there is value in acknowledging that you don’t have to act on everything that arouses you.” In other words, we’re more in control of our behaviors than we sometimes take responsibility for (or give ourselves credit for).
Next, actively explore what else does it for you. Francis says I can do this by paying attention to who catches my eye when there’s not a smoker in the room and to also self-reflect on secondary characteristics I find attractive in the smokers. Is it their intelligence, sense of humor, or quirky sense of style?
By acknowledging a holistic profile of all my turn-ons, it’ll be easier for me to find a partner who satisfies my needs and desires long-term without compromising my grander priorities. Those suggestive ’60s-era cigarette ads will always be around for me, without the added punch of a health concern.
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